Monday, December 21, 2015

Will PBLA Address My Frustrations?

If you teach in a program funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as I do (the program is called LINC--Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada), then you are already using Portfolio-based Language Assessment in your classroom or soon will be. At my centre, we have begun training and will do our first pilot modules in the new year.

In one of those training sessions recently, we were fleshing out plans to incorporate PBLA practices into our teaching, such as:

  • needs assessments
  • the setting of language (for life) goals by the learners
  • the identification by the learner of steps to be taken to reach said goals
  • formative assessment by the teacher
  • learner reflection (such as journaling re achievements every Friday)
As I was sitting there working on the task analysis of a sample lesson with the colleague who will be paired up with me to pilot a module, it began to dawn on me how useful some of these tools might prove to be with my morning class of seniors (see last week's post). Indeed, it seems that their biggest problem is an inability--tucked tidily into their blind spots--to make the link between a lack of progress in a given area and their failing to stretch outside the comfort zone of the small set of learning tools they brought with them to this new setting after spending five decades in a teacher-centred academic system steeped in the grammar-translation method of language learning.

That's what I'm up against. Add to that the fact that most of them are not comfortable reaching out, initiating conversations with strangers, or taking risks in the language.

But while I was sitting in that PBLA workshop, I began to envision a new kind of conversation between us in the new year. What exactly IS my goal, I want them to ask themselves. I want them to reflect on whether the tools they are currently using are or are not bringing them closer to those stated objectives. I am hoping that through reflection and self-assessment, they can begin to see that some of their tools are proving only moderately effective, while others lie in the toolbox untouched.

Well, I actually couldn't wait for the new year to begin. Since we had a short teaching week before winter break--too few days to tackle a whole topic--I decided to get them started thinking along the lines of goals and strategies. First, I threw out some discussion questions for them to address in groups of three to four, such as: 
  • Why do you come to this class?
  • What do you hope to achieve?
  • Do you feel you are making good progress?
  • What do you do to work toward your language goals?
After small group discussions, we had a plenary discussion about goals, progress and strategies. I gave them a few examples of strategies that I use when learning a new language. (I have studied about ten languages ranging from Latin and Greek to German, four romance languages, Japanese and Farsi.) I told them that when I set my mind on learning a new language, there are a couple of things I never fail to do. For one, I do whatever it takes to spend time speaking the language daily. If I can't find anyone wanting to be my friend and hang out, then I pay a tutor either with money or by bartering English lessons for their tutelage. Secondly, I label every item in my environment in the second language and read those sticky notes every time I pass by. Third, I immerse myself in the language by tuning my TV and radio to L2 content, picking up magazines and newspapers in the L2, and talking to myself in the language everywhere I go.

Some nodded agreement at these ideas while others laughed sheepishly, knowing full well they are resistant to such immersion.

With that I introduced them to the Strategic Inventory for Language Learning. They could take it home for a couple of nights to tackle all the big words with their electronic dictionaries, then we would start going over it before the break and continue in the new year. I think that's a very good place to start: with raising awareness of all the strategies we COULD add to our arsenals to give our brains many more ways to make connections.

As we were going over the first few strategies on the list, I did my best to illustrate when something wasn't clear to everyone. For example, I took a tin of jasmine green tea out of the cabinet and passed it around the room. "As you breathe in this scent, repeat the word jasmine ten times." To illustrate another strategy, I had an Iraqi student teach me two new words in Arabic. I acted both of them out (eat and walk), but one of them I also wrote on the board in Arabic script. I left it there five minutes before erasing it.  After the break, they tested me. I still remembered the word for walk, which I'd written. I couldn't remember the word for eat, which I'd only chanted while acting it out.

So! We are getting friendly with the idea that strategies matter. Some work better than others, and each of us is different with regard to what works and what doesn't. I am very much looking forward to more work with goals, strategies and reflection in the new year!

How about you? Are you implementing PBLA in your teaching? If not, are you using any of these elements in your classroom? Why or why not? And if so, are they working?


  1. You have some great strategies here Kelly! I have also used similar strategies for goal setting with my online students who are intermediate or advanced language learners. Do you use different strategies for lower level students?
    Thanks for blogging about this!

  2. I have recently started a site, the information you provide on this website has helped
    me tremendously. Thanks for all of your time & work.

    1. Please share the site address with us soon! --K


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